By Tisaranee Gunasekara –
“King who feed on your people, since you rule nonentities…” –Homer (The Iliad)
Six billion rupees of public funds will be spent on building a super-luxury condominium to house Sri Lanka’s abstemious parliamentarians. The fully air-conditioned skyscraper will spread over two-and-a-half acres and consist of “all modern facilities such as swimming pools, gyms, walking paths, restaurants and playgrounds”[i]. The self-denying parliamentarians will pay the princely sum of Rs 1,000 per month for their new rent-free abodes, as refundable deposit.
In that same country, the free midday-meal for primary-school students has reportedly been reduced to a glass of milk, because the suppliers for last year’s meals are yet to be paid.[ii]
A Japanese company, and not the ubiquitous Chinese, will be tasked with building the condominium for parliamentarians. So unlike the ‘Always Breakdown’ Norochcholai, the legislators will be blessed with well-built and properly-functioning living spaces.
Corruption (in the word’s broadest possible sense) is a key control-tool of the Rajapaksas. The Siblings use the state and its resources to punish opponents and to reward those who succumb. The gifts granted to Hirunika Premachandra, who succumbed, is the corollary of the attempt to persecute Mangala Samaraweera, who refused to succumb, by using a Victorian-law sourced in the homophobic Old Testament values!
The project to provide all parliamentarians with opulent abodes at national expense is part of a larger plan to transform corruption into a national template. When corruption is a common malaise rather than a familial/governmental one, the moral-ethical distance between the Rulers and their opponents is automatically effaced. In such a state, the electorate, instead of erupting in anger, will sink into disgusted apathy.
Apathy, as history proves, is an invaluable friend of tyranny.
Hegemonic rulers are those who succeed in inculcating the ruled with their own values. The Rajapaksas have made deadly advances in this department. Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism is kosher; familial politics is the norm; nepotism no longer disgusts; corruption and opportunism seem smart, winning-qualities rather than execrable vices.
In a country where war is peace, slavery freedom and ignorance strength, cowardice becomes bravery, self-interest wisdom and hatred patriotism.
The epidemic nature of the problem is indicated by Namini Wijedasa’s expose of the familial nature of our foreign service[iii]. That the Rajapaksas are using the Foreign Service as salubrious pastures for their mostly mediocre kith and kin was no surprise; what was truly shocking was the number of equally unprepossessing non-Rajapaksa political offspring/siblings occupying second-level diplomatic positions across the globe[iv].
So the Opposition’s response to the housing-trap will be crucial. Will the UNP, the JVP and the TNA stringently oppose this criminal waste of public funds and refuse to become its beneficiaries? Or will they too apply for a house in the ultra-luxury condominium?
When the Rajapaksas used the BBS to try to prevent the slightly-reformed UNP from reaching out to the persecuted Tamils, their plan was to get the Elephant (and the Leadership Council) to tar itself with the same racist-brush as themselves. If there is no appreciable difference on any front between the Rajapaksas and their opponents, apart from Mahinda’s winning smile, Basil’s oleaginous manner and Gotabhaya’s mailed-fist, the Rajapaksas may not even need to use the 10 new water-cannon trucks purchased from India at Rs. 5-6million each[v].
If the opposition succumbs, the consequent growth of public cynicism will undermine the possibility of a moderate and democratic alternative to the Rajapaksas and open the door to extremist and anti-democratic options, of the ethno-religious and/or militarist variety (a Colonels’ or a Sergeants’ coup).
Lost in Illogic
It is not just a moral compass the Rajapaksas are devoid of; they also lack a rational compass. Under their rule the irrational has become as normal and unobjectionable as the immoral and the unethical. This is most devastatingly evident in the financial-economic sphere, where family-centric policies are pushing the country into a ruinous debt-trap.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, in 2010-11 Mihin Lanka “incurred a net loss of Rs.940.49million….and the company’s current liabilities exceeded its current assets by Rs.1,083,92million, reflecting a Negative Networth of Rs.3814.45million”[vi]. The cost of reconstructing the Jaffna-Vavuniya road is said to be Rupees 112.88 million per kilometre[vii] (built by a Chinese contractor with a loan from a Chinese bank). According to the Auditor General’s latest report, “the CPC had entered into contracts with conditions unfavourable to it…. The report refers to losses incurred by the import of substandard fuel, the fallout of the infamous hedging deal and the payment of bonus to staff when the corporation was running at a massive loss.”[viii] The entry of LIOC was done in a ‘haphazard manner’; the ‘absence of proper agreements’ has allowed the LIOC to use China Bay land sans rent. The signature Rajapaksa project Norochcholai was closed for 73 full days and 43 half days in 2013. In an ultimate irony, the Rajapaksas are now turning to the Indians to clear up the Norochocholai mess, Made-in-China![ix]
The presence of a very narrow stakeholder-base entails the adoption of an accordingly circumscribed governance-perspective. Policy decisions have one overarching motive – the furtherance of the interests and the satisfaction of the whims of the ruling family. This may vary from permitting the loss-making Sri Lankan (headed by Presidential Brother-in-law[x]) to borrow more than Rs. 22.7billion to buy 10 new aircrafts[xi] to permitting the importation of 1000cc motorbikes for ‘sports purposes’[xii] (racing is reportedly an enjoyable pastime and a lucrative business for Presidential offspring).
All costs of Familial misrule will ultimately fall on the people, including the Rajapaksas’ Sinhala-Buddhist base. According to Minister Sarath Amunugama, “most low income groups are eking out an existence on just one and a half dollars a day”[xiii]. As more indirect taxes are imposed, to pay for corruption, waste, incompetence and extravagance, the living conditions of ordinary people will plummet at a greater rate. Still the Rajapaksas will be safe, so long as the majority Sinhala-Buddhists allow themselves to be hoodwinked by patriotic slogans and terrified by Tiger/Jihad/Church/international conspiracy bogies.
During his epic-contestation with Agamemnon, Achilles of The Iliad faults his leader for making personally-motivated and thus collectively-counterproductive decisions, and implies that Greek compliance has enabled this ruinous path.
The Siblings are able to have their untrammelled way not only because the opposition is weak but also because the majority community is fatally short-sighted, unintelligent and irrational.
The Sinhalese, with the Rajapaksas, are traversing a similar path as Tamils did with the Tigers.
Discriminated against by Colombo, bereft of hope in democracy and rule of law, the Tamils yearned for a forceful leadership which could reply the Sinhalese in their own language. The LTTE is the result of that yearning. Caught in an unending war, the Sinhalese too yearned for a forceful leadership which could fight the Tigers, the Tiger way. The Rajapaksas are the result of that yearning.
Tamils, for reasons good and ill, acquiesced with the Tiger’s homicidal/suicidal way, and ended in Nandikadal, internment camp and de facto occupation. The near carte blanche accorded by Sinhala-Buddhists to the Rajapaksas is equally ill-fated. Whether Sinhala-Buddhist submission to Rajapaksa’s predatory misrule is motivated by understandable fear or culpable identification would be immaterial to that final disastrous dénouement.
[ii] Daily Mirror – 22.1.2014
[iv] An inevitable outcome of staffing our embassies with well-connected nincompoops is that more national wealth has to be wasted in hiring foreign public relations firms to do the work of diplomats; for instance, the UNP recently revealed that the Central Bank has signed a Rs. 100million deal with Thomson Advisory Group to woo American congressmen: http://www.ft.lk/2014/01/22/unp-exposes-rs-100-m-deal-to-woo-us-congressmen/
[vi] The Sunday Times – 1.12.2013
[viii] The Sunday Times – 15.12.2013
[x] The same gentlemen who publicly admitted to smuggling foreign currency into the country, and got away with it.